Garrand Moehlenkamp: The agency model of the future isn’t about WHAT you do. It’s about WHY you do it.

By Matt Stiker, Chief Marketing (and Nourishing) Officer, Garrand Moehlenkamp

Over this past year, I can’t tell you how many times Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” video popped up in my LinkedIn news feed. You probably got it, too—if not, watch it here. It’s so damn good. I don’t know about you, but the ones that I saw were posted by people from all corners of my career, folks from all manner of agencies and clients from all manner of brands who were as excited about it as I’ve seen them about anything—it was like he was a one man marketing flash mob train wreck car accident piano cat that no one could stop watching or sharing. And it popped up again yesterday.

To summarize the main idea he presents, Sinek explains that “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” And then he talks about the neo-cortex, Apple vs. Microsoft, Martin Luther King, Jr., Samuel Pierpont Langley and TiVo, all to articulate his point of view. How he ties all those incredibly disparate things together into one presentation is stunning and beautifully done—the guy’s a gifted speaker, for sure—but he always comes back to that one point “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Which got me thinking about the article I posted week before last (if you didn’t have a chance to check it out, here’s a link—“The importance of a brand point-of-view. Or, why don’t agencies take their own advice?”), and as I hope it makes clear, agencies seem to weight our outward communications (websites as prime example) far more towards talking about WHAT we do vs WHY we do it. Do we not think Simon Sinek’s brilliant observations apply to our own brands, do we not think clients are people, too?

And then, just after this year’s Cannes AdFest Boondoggle Extraordinaire, Lindsey Slaby of Sunday Dinner published a really brilliant piece on LinkedIn called “Cannes: Has the future agency model been right under our noses?” In it, she theorized that agencies need to think more (and more deeply) about collaboration, and that we need to invite players to the table who in a world of fragmented consumer engagement (and complex marketing resource management) may be seen less as competitors and more as colleagues. She suggested that agencies re-think “how” they bring their products and services (and brands) to market. And that got me thinking.

What if the real agency model of the future is not just about WHAT the agency does, what skills and capabilities and experience it brings to its clients, but more about HOW we do it (as Lindsey suggests) and WHY we do it (as Simon suggests)?


One of the comments I heard following the publishing of my article last week was that it seemed like I was suggesting that agencies specialize, that instead of opening our doors to any and all clients we focus instead on a particular industry or category. And while there’s something to be said for doing that, and while certain agencies are set up to do that and others see it as a starting point from which to grow, that wasn’t really my point.

In my view, having a point of view and knowing your WHY shouldn’t be restricting, it should be expanding and it should allow you to think about your agency brand in the broadest possible way while also clarifying and simplifying how and why you go about doing what you’re doing (in the same way that the brands below aren’t restricted or limited by how they think about themselves):

  • FedEx doesn’t deliver packages, they deliver possibilities.
  • Dove doesn’t sell soap; they create confidence in your own beauty.
  • The Zappos brand is about great service, they just happen to sell shoes.
  • And ESPN isn’t a large network; it’s a huge sports fan (thanks, Jerry Cronin).

Limiting? Well, maybe, but if you’re ESPN you probably don’t want or need to expand beyond your deep passion for—and your extensive knowledge of—sports. Could they produce and market a sports drink? Sure. Could they produce and market a computer? Maybe? I mean, I suppose they could market a sports-only laptop which was all about watching games of all kinds from all over the world, and also fantasy sports and online betting and player stats and 24/7 score updates and wait a second, that’s actually not a bad idea somebody write that down for me and don’t you dare try to steal it copyright copyright copyright.

Point is, it’s not really limiting at all, except to keep you in the parameters of what you believe in anyway, e.g., WHY you do what you do.

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

One of the most brilliant brand planners I’ve ever worked with, Steve LeNeveu, approached all brand assignments with Al Ries’s words in mind, drumming them John Bonham–like into all of our heads: There is no positioning without sacrifice.

And that’s pretty much what I was saying in the previous article—by accepting anything, by gleefully informing any client from any brand and any industry that they’re perfect for us (and thank God you’re here because we need you more than you need us), we don’t really sacrifice anything—and as a result, as Sinek says, it’s hard for us to inspire anyone.

The curious thing to me is that we continue to tell our clients how important it is for them to sacrifice in their positioning without doing it ourselves. Why? Well in part because, we claim, we don’t have time. Our clients’ work comes first. You know, the old “cobbler’s kids get their shoes fixed last” thing.

But to be honest, I think the cobbler’s-kids claim is kind of a copout.

Not to get all Simon Sinek-y with random-but-relevant tangents on you, but my oldest friend in the world is Kimerer Lamothe (weeellll, in fairness she may share that designation with Mark Southworth, but that’s an arm-wrestling match for another time). Kimerer happens to be a farmer, a dancer, a choreographer, a theatre producer, and a mother of five amazing children.

She’s no joke.

She’s also a writer, and it will likely come as no surprise that some of her favorite topics to write about are in fact farming, dancing, choreographing, producing, or mothering.

It’s the writing about mothering—one article in particular, which she published non-coincidentally on Mother’s Day this year—that caught my eye. There is a stereotype of mothers who give up—in some cases, quite literally—everything for their children. Their workouts, their appetites, their sleep, their “me” time, their peace, their friendships, their marriage, etc., etc. But in an article in which she authentically bares her soul, sharing a story that few mothers would actually share publicly and describing how she feels about being a mother, Kimerer said something so remarkably insightful that it transcends motherhood and relates directly to the topic I’m discussing today:

“I am selfish. I admit it. I thoroughly believe that if I honor my deepest yearnings, I will have far more to give my children, my partner, and the world. More wisdom. More love. More of myself…I have never stopped creating, dancing and writing—doing my work—not because I was trying to be some kind of superhero. For me, the “choice” between working and mothering is not a choice. It is like asking if I want to eat or breathe. I have to find a way to do both—for me, my partner, and our kids.”

Holy cow. That’s some goosebumps-level thinking and writing, never mind the courage it took to write it down and throw it out there for the world to see (and judge).

But what if agencies adopted this approach, what if we acted a little bit selfish (and courageous) and recognized that in order for us to bring our best selves to our clients that we must first be our best selves, in whatever that means to us? Don’t our clients want us to inspire them, to bring more to the relationships we have with them? What client would ever complain about an agency partner bringing more wisdom, and more love? To me, being our agency’s best self means being really clear (and comfortable) with who we are and why we do what we do, in what we bring to every conversation, and to every decision we make.

And what if we recognized that there is no “choice” between the work we do for our clients and the work we do on ourselves, that in order to fully represent ourselves to our clients we have to spend time thinking about why we’re here in the first place?

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

In case you didn’t notice, folks, clients are people, too. And if you don’t think they’re making decisions about agencies based at least in part on emotions, if you don’t think B2B decisions are made with as much emotion as B2C decisions, then you’re not paying attention. No matter how many procurement or legal or financial people get involved in your business, at its heart it’s still about a relationship, and you still need to inspire your clients (like you probably did in the pitch). if you don’t, don’t be surprised if at some point they wake up and ask WHY it is that you do what you do.

So. Do you want to eat or breathe? And more importantly, what’s your plan for doing both?